With the Oscar nominations announced this week and the Golden Globes already over for another year, the 2017 awards season is well under way, which means the year's festival circuit has just kicked off. As with every January, Utah's Park Slope plays host to the Sundance Film Festival, or: the best that independent cinema has to offer amid the snowy depths of winter.
In times like these it's no surprise that the cinema on offer is a mix of fiercely political and deeply personal, humanist stories. From the war in Syria, climate change and police brutality in the US, the sheer amount of documentaries covering these topics nowadays is vast, but they're especially necessary right now. On the other hand it's the personal micro stories which shed light on someone else's struggle that allow us to understand one another better as human beings.
That said it's Sundance, so it's not without some left of field film fodder, which this year came courtesy of musician Flying Lotus, who premiered his debut feature, Kuso, to less than stellar reviews. In fact, hordes of audience members walked out "in a consistent stream up to the final scene," due to the film's grotesque and graphic nature.
But let's focus on the good takeaways here, so without further ado here are the 10 best movies and documentaries from Sundance to watch out for in 2017.
Director: Geremy Jasper
Straight outta New Jersey comes Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, an overweight aspiring young rapper who’s fighting her way through a world of strip clubs on an unlikely quest for glory.
The semi-autobiographical story from the relatively unknown director has firmly cemented Jasper on the list of Hollywood ones to watch. As a musician himself, Jasper spent two months holed up in a tiny New York bedroom with Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, where they worked obsessively together on Jasper’s last band video.
How that time in his life influenced Jasper is all too clear with Patti Cake$ – its creative visuals and mesmerizing soundtrack. And, just as with Zeitlin’s unlikely Beasts protagonist Hushpuppy, our protagonist here stands out from conventional variations as the perfect underdog. “Just to make myself clear,” she raps, “Get me the fuck out of here.”
Last Men in Aleppo
Directors: Steen Johannessen, Firas Fayyad
This distressing documentary – focusing on the exhausting everyday lives of White Helmet workers in Syria – offers powerful insights into their valiant rescue efforts, and is probably one of the most excruciating films you’ll see this year (“Watch out for ripped limbs,” one of the protagonists tells his colleague bluntly).
Khaled and Mahmoud cast anxious looks toward the sky as planes fly over, embark on a series of desperate rescues, and hold long discussions about the future for them and their families.
Yes, of course we already knew things were bad in Syria, but documentaries like Last Men in Aleppo are essential, cut-the-crap films which really need to be hammered home: Make sure you catch this one.
I Don’t Feel at Home In This World Anymore
Director: Macon Blair
Best known for starring in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and penning the screenplay for his follow-up, Green Room, Blair establishes himself as a major director in his own right with this directorial debut.
When a depressed woman is burgled, she decides to track down the thieves alongside her annoying neighbor. But they soon find themselves dangerously out of their depth against a pack of degenerate criminals.
The somewhat slapstick nature of the movie relegates it to a few leagues below Blair’s previous credentials in terms of jaw-droppingly callous violence. That said, this one’s still a viscerally smart and satisfyingly disturbing thriller, so be prepared to recoil and feel a little bit sick.
The Big Sick
Director: Michael Showalter
Few relationships can be classified as “normal,” but even so, this film follows a particularly unusual one. Based on the real-life romance between screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, it’s a love story with the slight derailment of a bad breakup and the not-so-slight derailment of a life-threatening lung infection and corresponding coma.
We have Judd Apatow to thank for seeing The Big Sick on the big screen. Apparently, Nanjiani bumped into him a while back and was asked by the producer whether he had any good movie pitches: Clearly, he did.
The comedic Apatow Productions flick presents something reminiscent of Knocked Up, only slightly darker and distinctly less whitewashed.
Directors: Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis
The filmmakers behind Whose Streets?, chronicling the grassroots uprising in Ferguson, Missouri after the 2014 police killing of an unarmed black teenager, said the documentary tries to chronicle the humanity behind a community in crisis. (Incidentally, another fantastic documentary off the back of the Missouri uprising is Do Not Resist, which follows the exceedingly frightening militarization of police forces in the U.S. since the 2014 turning point.)
Mixing new footage with social media posts, Whose Streets? is a mishmash of voices from the community that became a crisis point for racial injustice after police officer Darren Wilson shot dead 18-year-old Michael Brown for walking the wrong way down the street. (“He looked like a demon,” was Wilson’s sickening defence, apparently enough for the jury to let him off.)
Watch Whose Streets?, get angry, and wake up to the racist systems that control the US.
Call Me By Your Name
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Guadagnino’s masterful coming-of-age tale of a fling between holidaying academic Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and professor’s son Timothée Chalamet (Interstellar) is an adaptation of the 2007 André Aciman novel that’s something of a modern classic of gay literature.
From a director who’s known for his massively stylized movies (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), this one pares it back somewhat, as it tells the story – set in 1983 – of an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents' cliffside mansion on the Italian Riviera.
In two hours, we experience the most beautiful summer of our lives – a perfect first romance – culminating in a remarkable whopper of a final shot. This one is as ripe for awards as the movie’s famous peach (you’ll understand when you watch the scene).
A Ghost Story
Director: David Lowery
Watching Casey Affleck battle his demons in Manchester By The Sea was worth the ticket price alone. In Lowery’s latest, he and Rooney Mara play a young couple who move into an old Texas ranch. Affleck dies in a car crash just outside their house and returns as a ghost (although it’s hard to know for sure if it’s him as it’s just a bedsheet with two eye-holes cut out) and watches over Mara as she grieves while eating a lot of pie.
What’s the film really about, though? We’re guessing grief, love, regret, age, and time – and our place within it. In fact, for a film with an 87-minute runtime, A Ghost Story has nothing but time. It’s deliberately slow as it plays with time and perspective, embracing a supernatural element from an angle we don’t usually encounter, while reminding us that we’re at once massively important and wholly insignificant.
We know, we know, all of this – coupled with the fact that the movie is practically void of dialogue – sounds hugely pretentious: The genius is that it isn’t. Not one bit.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
Over a decade ago now, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth became a surprise documentary hit. Now, having opened Sundance, the sequel is here to show us just how close to a real energy revolution we are. Cohen and Shenk now chronicle Gore’s continued work since the previous film, as well as the scary number of predictions made in it that have already come to fruition.
If there’s ever been a film that’s too timely, then this is probably it. With the Earth’s temperature hitting a record high for the third year in a row, An Inconvenient Sequel couldn’t be more relevant. But watching it in the same week as Donald Trump’s inauguration certainly made it difficult to endure...
Still, the former veep continues his quest to shed light on the climate change phenomenon, and we’d all do well to take note.
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Sheridan – who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water – directs the story of an FBI agent who teams up with a local game tracker to investigate a killing at a Native American reservation. The unraveling mystery is brought to life by a couple of exceptionally violent shootouts and some striking photography of the snow-laden mountains – it’s beautiful.
Avengers co-stars Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner star, which is a far cry from where we’re used to seeing these two. But, with Sheridan’s incredible direction, Renner delivers quite possibly the best performance of his career.
Sheridan’s past work showed his amazing aptitude for cinematic realism. Wind River has realistic elements, too. But it seems to be intended as a metaphorical commentary on life and what it means to rise above your environment… It’s also one hell of a ride.
Director: Dee Rees
This heavyweight drama follows two men who return home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi where they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to life after war. Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, it’s a portrait of two families, one black and one white, trying to get by as they fall further and further into hatred.
Combining vivid voiceover with some damn fine cinematography, the film’s tone has such a powerful punch that it almost overshadows the characters. That’s not possible, however, with the acting talent on board. In fact, the strongest asset to Mudbound is probably the cast and each of their fierce performances.
What’s more, although Mudbound may be set almost eight decades ago, the movie’s thoughtful and poignant approach to race, love, and family feels especially relevant – and necessary – right about now.
While you wait for these festival flicks to get a wider release, check out the 40 best movies coming out in 2017.